• Skeptics and cynics

    When I am asked to describe myself, the term “skeptic” is often the first that comes to mind. This often, unfortunately, seems to have a negative connotation to many as,  for them, skeptic and cynic are synonymous. Nothing could be further from the truth!

    Show-me State of MindFor those of us who embrace the term, it’s good to be able to distinguish between scientific skepticism and pathological skepticism. Scientific skeptics (just “skeptics” for short) are those of us that demand evidence for claims and then use scientific methods to examine said evidence. We keep an open mind to new ideas, but do not accept them unquestioningly (regardless of what authority figures they come from). Michael Shermer wrote that the motto of a skeptic should be the Latin phrase Sum ergo cogito (I am, therefore I think). It is, in other words, a “show me” state of mind.

    Non-changing state of mind

    This is easily distinguished from the pathological skeptics (just “cynics” for short), whose mindset is marked by closed-mindedness to new information. This group is highly guilty of the disconfirmation bias – only seeking disconfirming evidence for those ideas that are against their beliefs and accepting unquestioning those things that appear to support their beliefs. These folks display a “non-changing” state of mind.

     One of my favorite phrases, and the guiding thought behind when I teach critical thinking and skepticism, is “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.” (who came up with it is a matter of some debate, as Sagan quoted Oberg as saying it, but Oberg said he had heard it from someone else, and there are variations going back over a hundred years). Too often, it seems, people either keep such an open mind that they fall for anything (cough*newagers*cough) or they are so closed off to new ideas that they refuse to believe anything outside of their small, biased worldview (cough*cynics*cough).

    Balancing openness and closedness, entertaining ideas different from your own when there is evidence to support them – these are the hallmarks of a skeptic. A willingness to change your mind when confronted with new data is not a weakness, but a strength. Admitting you were wrong takes enormous amounts of courage, while just doggedly sticking to your beliefs when they have been demonstrated as false just takes enormous amounts of willful ignorance. True skeptics, just like good scientists, are willing to change their belief system based on data.

    One example of this is the story of Richard Muller of the Berkeley Earth group, who was skeptical of human-induced climate change and based on his own analysis of the data, did a 180 on his views. This contrasts with non-scientists like Senator James Inhofe (Republican from my home state of Oklahoma), who despite all the evidence continue to ignore, downplay, or outright deny that climate change is occurring and anthropogenic in nature.

    We, as a nation, are not skeptics. Many of us are, though, cynics. I have found all too frequently that skepticism and non-theism do not go hand in hand. Too many of us, regardless of religious belief or non-belief, fall prey to the confirmation bias and all the other reasons you can’t trust your brain. We don’t understand the difference between science and pseudoscience. We horribly misunderstand probability and statistics. Humans, as a species, do not seem to have evolved to be critical, rational thinkers. Believing comes naturally to us, disbelief does not.

    In other words, we have to work hard to be skeptics and not cynics. It takes effort above and beyond what you would normally do in everyday life. Are you up to the task, or will you take the easy road to cynicism?

    Category: PseudosciencePsychologySkepticism


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com

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    • Sonny Moonie

      I was intrigued by the words “skeptics” and “cynics” being in the title. They’re both words for adherents of philosophical schools of opinion that go back to ancient times, so using them both suggests there would be some discussion that’s historically or philosophically informed about the words in the article. Instead the article assumes the turn of the 21st century jargon use of “skeptic” (someone who is careful to believe what scientists believe on evidence and not to believe what scientists don’t believe for lack of evidence.) Then the article revisits the expression “pathological skepticism” that has been used by other 21st century “skeptics” to mean skepticism of more than what current “skeptics” want others to be skeptical of, and re-purposes it mean so-called “skeptics” who are even more certain and fixed in their beliefs than current “skeptics” (although sometimes it’s hard to see how anyone could be.)

      That’s par for using English and should be allowed, because it would be hard to communicate if restricted to using words only in their original, historical, or philosophically precise senses. Then the article jumps the shark in that tendency to redefine words by saying “cynics” is short for “pathological skeptics” and using it that way. What connection of ideas caused that use of the word “cynics” I have no idea, beyond a guess that it’s something to do with the modern English sense of the word “cynical” having negative connotations.

      Well, away from being picky about words and on to more practical issues of specific beliefs: Would you consider changing your mind on global warming if the last 15 years of climate data showed no statistically significant trend, which is the currently reported data? What if you also knew that Antarctic ice had reached it greatest extent recorded this Southern hemisphere winter? Would you change your mind about “climate change” if the Earth descends into another little ice age in this decade, and does the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard? There are some long-range climate forecasters who believe that will happen, admittedly most of them are cranks, but they haven’t been shown wrong by data yet, unlike the IPCC-endorsed anthropogenic climate change computer model projections.

      By the way, doing a 360 means turning around a full revolution, ending up pointed in the same direction as when you started. A 180 would be an about face.

      I’m a true skeptic, or as “scientific skeptics” would call my position, a philosophical skeptic. I don’t believe anything. So it’s all funny to me. If you want a one-word term for me that’s distinct from what you call yourself, I would prefer “snark” to “cynic.”

      I hope you don’t favor penalties for Internet “trolls” where “troll” is defined as someone being skeptical and irreverent. Well I’ll submit my comment anyway and you can delete it if you like.

      • gps

        Hey Sonny! If that was a trolling comment, I hope to get many more of them 🙂

        As you pointed out, I wasn’t using the terms “skeptic” and “cynic” in their standard philosophical sense (for other readers, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_skepticism and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_%28philosophy%29 if you’re not familiar), but you are certainly correct in that they have a long history of usage in those ways.

        Thanks for pointing out the 360 error, also.

        As for climate change, I would change my mind if the vast majority of those well-qualified to decide if the data does or does not support anthropogenic causes. Not being a climatologist myself, I have to rely on the consensus of identified experts.

        • Sonny Moonie

          I like your response. I was watching some Christopher Hitchens videos on YouTube today and stumbled across “Catholic vs Richard Dawkins and Lawrence krauss” where Dawkins says, at one minute in, “The idea that science is a religion, when in fact science is interested in evidence and is prepared to change its mind if contrary evidence comes in, that’s very, very different from a religion. As Lawrence said earlier, in science we’re constantly open to the possibility of having to change our minds, and science proceeds by progressive refinement and changing minds, and there are things that I suppose will never be disproved, things like, erm, that the planets orbit the sun. That’s never going to change. I don’t think that the fact of evolution is ever going to be disproved. It’s always going to be true that we are cousins of chimpanzees and of monkeys and of kangaroos.”

          The word “pathological” sounds a bit offensive when it’s used in reference to someone’s opinion, someone not having just the right degree of skepticism. At least you recognize that being off on the amount of skepticism can be either way and that another word for it would be useful. “Snark” was a supercilious suggestion for someone being supercilious or irreverent.

          “Dogmatist” would be a good term for those who go too far with scientific conventionalism and inflexibility. It should be clear enough what it means, as long as it’s not in the context of saying someone is religious, clear to anyone without giving a definition and without having to explain why it’s an objectionable position. Don’t think that you can change that suggestion back to a reason for using the word “cynicism” just because the Cynics were so named after dogs.

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    • Shadeburst

      If Richard A Muller was a climate skeptic then I’m a male model. How tragic that you should have proved indelibly that gullible open-mindedness and a closed-minded inability to adapt your views to new evidence, can coexist simultaneously. CAGW is a belief system not supported by the facts.

      • I’m sorry, are you saying that a) Muller lied about his views on climate change and the switch in them and b) there’s not strong scientific evidence to support global climate change driven by human activity?

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    • eze60

      I think that this is an attempt by those in the organized skeptic’s movement or what’s akin to skeptic religiosity to shield themselves from being the skeptopaths that they are. The article used Shermer’s quote as a model. Suddenly, I lost interest and realized what this article was up to.
      Skepticism is actually a normal state. But the degree that we interpret it defines whether objectivity or an agenda driven slant is involved.
      I am skeptical of any skeptics who find it necessary to be part of a skeptic’s movement.